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When Your Kids Misbehave...

Disciplining children is difficult—and inevitable. Here are some tips for staying positive when the time comes.

By Alina Larson and Jessica C. Kraft, New York, New York

Your six-year-old won't stop fighting with her brother, though you've asked several times. Your 12-year-old is always late getting ready for church. Your 15-year-old keeps coming in after curfew. And you're sick and tired of yelling at them. Discipline is probably the biggest challenge in parenting. Should you threaten and punish to get your children to behave? Should you let them figure out the consequences on their own? Or is there another way?

Positive discipline combines love and limits, and practiced well, makes children and parents happy and well adjusted. Research shows that children brought up by parents who are both kind and firm get along better with their classmates, take initiative more often and are more curious and excited about the world. We asked the experts for proven techniques for raising responsible, confident, caring kids.

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Positive discipline is not about blame or punishment, it's about instruction—that is, teaching kids how to think, not what to think. And in order to work, says Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., mom of seven and author of 17 books on positive discipline, it's got to include four criteria.

First, it has to help give children a sense of connection. Kids of all ages have a natural desire to belong. Children who feel they're a significant part of the family, the school and the larger community—whether it's town, church, temple or beyond—are less likely to misbehave. To foster this connection, parents must separate the child from his behavior. A child shouldn't be made to feel bad about himself, but he should understand how his actions and attitude can be harmful to himself and to the group he's part of.

Second, discipline should be respectful and encouraging. Sahara Pirie of Seattle, Washington, who has been using and teaching positive discipline for years, says, "We are all due equal dignity and respect, even children." That's why the old technique of washing a kid's mouth with soap after she says a swear word isn't very useful. It makes more sense to talk about why it's not good to use that word and prompt her to think about other ways to express herself. The soap instills fear and disgust; the discussion empowers the child to make a better choice the next time she feels the need to vent strong emotions.

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Third, positive discipline must work long term. It can't just pose short-term solutions. Santa Cruz, California, dad Adrian Garsia acted like a drill sergeant with his two kids until he realized barking orders wasn't allowing them to learn what to do in the future. "Now I think of myself as the copilot," says Garsia. "My kid's the one who needs to learn how to fly by herself. I'm just assisting." A consistent approach to discipline is crucial. Kids need to know the rules and the consequences for breaking them. They also need to know that parents will follow through on the consequences.

Finally, positive discipline should teach social and life skills—cooperation, problem-solving, respect and concern for others, how to contribute to home, school and community. Don't do everything for your kids. Give them meaningful jobs, tasks that keep the household running smoothly. Everyone likes to feel capable and needed. And let kids make mistakes, Nelsen says. When you rush in to rescue them, "they don't develop the emotional muscles to cope with disappointment."

There are positive discipline techniques geared for different ages. Developed by psychologists Michael Weiss and Sheldon Wagner, "drawing the line" establishes firm boundaries with kids ages 2 to 10 while giving them control over difficult situations. It's a fast way to improve behavior—from sibling fighting to picky eating to uncooperative attitudes.